There are certain ways to tell stories, and certain ways also to start them. Certain good ways. This vignette, following that maxim, probably has a good way to start it. Probably. Perhaps the way to start this off, in terms of words and phrases and prose, is an idea left unoccurred; however, narratively, we are free to start this story on a hot July day in 186X, in a stairway leading to a cheap cupboard of a lodging on K────y Street. Specifically, we start this story by joining one Dmitri Prokofitch Razhumikhin, a man who is not necessarily main character material, but will nevertheless be acting as one for the interim of this tale.
Dmitri Prokofitch Razhumikhin, our protagonist, is ending the rambling introduction and ushering in the meat of the story with a bucket of tepid water, destined for the body (or more likely, the floor) of one Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov, a recluse whose only friend is the ever-dependable and aforementioned Razhumikhin, and who currently is bed(couch)-ridden by a summer fever. The reasoning that Razhumikhin had followed to end up carting this heavy water up this narrow staircase was simple: Raskolnikov has a fever, and he’s cooped up in his stuffy apartment, and the weather has been unbearably hot lately. In short, he’s sweating a lot. If Razhumikhin had felt the need to justify himself, he could have said that the plan to bathe Raskolnikov is as much for his sake as Rodya’s: he smells bad. Really bad. And since Razhumikhin insists on playing the nurse, he has to deal with that stench - and he chooses to do so by getting rid of it instead of just learning to ignore it.
“Hey, Rodya!” he says cheerfully, pushing the door open with some awkwardness. It’s not surprising that Raskolnikov makes no reaction to this. He’s asleep, it looks like, or unconscious. If there’s a difference.
Undaunted, Razhumikhin places the bucket of water on the floor next to what he’s previously gathered for this venture: a few scraps of absorbent cloth, some for washing and some for drying; soap; a comb for Rodya’s stringy blond-brown hair; and a set of clothes, old and ragged like all the clothes Rodya owns, to change him into when they were done.
Razhumikhin stands up, hands on his hips. “How are you feeling, Rodya?” No response, but Razhumikhin expected that. He turns and closes the door for privacy, saying, “Nevermind, I’m sure you’ll feel much better after a bath. You’ll be nice and clean…”
Again, no response. Razhumikhin returns to the couch and stares down at his sick friend. How to go about this…? Well, Razhumikhin supposes as he rolls up his shirtsleeves, the first thing to do would be to get him off the couch so as not to get it wet. Wetter. That poor couch. There’s nothing that Razhumikhin can do for it.
He’s light, Razhumikhin thinks with surprise as he picks Raskolnikov up off the couch. Far lighter than he should be. But Razhumikhin shouldn’t be surprised; Raskolnikov’s always been like that, or at least he has for the whole time Razhumikhin has known him - scrawny and underfed, prone to fainting not simply because of a sickly disposition but also because he would often just outright forget to eat. Even with Razhumikhin stubbornly feeding him with soup provided by Praskovya Pavlovna and Nastasya (mostly Nastasya), Raskolnikov remained that way after taking ill, and had actually lost weight.
But of course there’s nothing Razhumikhin could really do about that, at least right now. Between Raskolnikov’s malnourishment and Razhumikhin’s strong arms, it’s an easy feat to move him to floor and prop him against the long-suffering couch with barely the flutter of an eyelid.
Naturally, now, the next step: …Razhumikhin finds himself hesitating for the first time since he decided that Rodya needed a bath. Naturally the next step was to strip him completely naked. Which. Of course. Razhumikhin doesn’t have a problem with. Necessarily. Why - should he? It wasn’t as though it were the same situation as if he, Razhumikhin, a man, were stripping a woman completely naked. And of course. He just wanted to give Rodya a bath.
If he wakes up suddenly, he’ll probably misinterpret my intentions, our protagonist thinks, taking hold of Raskolnikov’s shirt almost gingerly, and he’ll probably hit me before I could explain. Of course, even if he weren’t currently battling a soporific fever, a punch from Raskolnikov would barely be felt by hulking, bear-like Razhumikhin. But still. This was, clearly, the reason why Razhumikhin was hesitating at this point. And satisfied with that rationalization, Razhumikhin goes forward with his plan and begins disrobing Raskolnikov.
Although he had felt how light Raskolnikov was only a minute ago, Razhumikhin is nonetheless slightly shocked and more than slightly concerned at how visibly thin Raskolnikov is. And the fact that he’s exactly as pale as expected somehow just makes it look worse - Razhumikhin’s eyes can easily trace the jutting contour of bones beneath bloodlessly white skin - the harsh outline of individual ribs and the severe prominence of his collarbones and shoulder joints, and Razhumikhin almost wants to cry. He’s so bony. Can’t he take care of himself? Can’t he?
Razhumikhin hesitates again before taking off Raskolnikov’s pants. Maybe that’s not necessary right now. After all, it doesn’t matter if his clothes get a little wet - they’ll need to be washed anyway (or burned. They’re so old, they barely fit, and Rodya doesn’t even look good in them). So Razhumikhin fetches one of the washcloths, soaks it and wrings it out, applies soap as needed, and prepares to get scrubbing.
Raskolnikov flickers back to life as the water trickles over his skin. He looks at Razhumikhin. But his gaze is confused and far away and there’s no spark of recognition. “Rodya?” Razhumikhin says anyway. Raskolnikov doesn’t even seem to register that that’s his name. He’s not really awake, is he, Razhumikhin thinks with a sigh as he feels each rib beneath wet fingers. Raskolnikov closes his eyes again and Razhumikhin ignores it, ignores him, focusing on just thoroughly clean the parts of his body that he has access to right now.
“What are you doing?” (Or, at least, an incoherent mumble that almost sounds as such.) Razhumikhin looks up. Raskolnikov’s eyes are still closed, but his dry lips are twitching.
“I’m giving you a bath,” Razhumikhin says, his words coming easy despite all the tightness in his throat. “You need one.”
Raskolnikov makes a small noise of acknowledgement, or perhaps it’s a tiny moan.
“This would be much easier if you could sit up on your own,” Razhumikhin coaxes, but Raskolnikov doesn’t reply. He just lies there with his eyes closed and his breathing irregular and his skin hot.
After a while he mutters something like, “the water’s cold.”
“It’s not,” Razhumikhin says gently, tilting Raskolnikov’s head back with one hand so he can better wash his neck and behind his ears with the other. “It’s just your fever.” His thumb brushes Raskolnikov’s lip. It’s as dry as it looks. And warm, too, too warm. And soft.
Razhumikhin mentally shakes himself. His mind was going some very strange places today… Slightly embarrassed at himself yet determined to complete this task, he turns Raskolnikov around, or at least tries to. Even if he’s technicallyconscious, he isn’t, as previously observed, really awake, and any attempt Razhumikhin made at getting to sit up on his own just resulted in Raskolnikov slipping limply to the dusty floor. Quite counterproductive, and a waste of water, Razhumikhin thinks as he wipes Raskolnikov off again. He ends up with Raskolnikov leaning heavily against his chest, getting his shirt all wet; at least he can reach his back like this. Moving carefully, he re-wets the rag and re-applies some soap.
Washing his back is much the same as washing his front, mostly. Raskolnikov’s shoulderblades are just as sharp as his collarbones, and Razhumikhin finds himself unconsciously following the path of his spine with the cloth, so obvious it is in his underweightedness.
And then there’s the scar. Angry pink and mottled, jagged and welt-like, a large patch of ruined skin on the upper part of his back. Razhumikhin knows what it’s from, or at least he’s heard something from someone somewhere - Raskolnikov once saved some small children from a fire - so he knows that it isn’t a bad scar, but rather a good scar, if either thing exists. At the very least, he can’t imagine that Raskolnikov would be ashamed of it. But Razhumikhin is… almost afraid to touch it, as though even a gentle touch with a cool, wet cloth could still somehow bring Raskolnikov pain, despite the burn being long healed. Or maybe that’s not it - maybe it has less to do with pain and more to to do with profane.
Razhumikhin feels Raskolnikov’s mouth move against his shoulder. “Sorry, did you say something?” he says, snapped out of his reverie.
…I guess not, he thinks after a few seconds of silence. He self-consciously goes back to scrubbing pallid, pyretic bare skin, with each pass of the rag over the burn scar more anxiously delicate than it need be.
With his upper body now clean, Razhumikhin is sure that the still semi-unconscious Raskolnikov is already starting to feel better and his fever will break in the next few days - tomorrow, even, or later today, and maybe just maybe Rodya will feel at least some gratitude towards his best and his only friend. …Razhumikhin’s smile wavers slightly as he realizes the unavoidable fact that he had now reached what he had previously put off: the cleaning of Raskolnikov’s lower body.
There’s no shame in admitting he’s embarrassed by this, he’s sure. There are only so many circumstances that might result in a man taking off another man’s pants, especially when the other man is already leaning so, so close…
While shirtlessness didn’t seem to have gotten through to Raskolnikov, the clumsy fingers at his waist and the tugging removal of both pants and undergarments certainly does. Sort of. He half-sits up in alarm and says, mostly coherently, “What are you doing? What’s going on?!”
“I’m still giving you a bath,” Razhumikhin says steadily.
“Where’s my shirt?”
“I’m giving you a bath, Rodya,” Razhumikhin says, clearly enunciating each word, “I had to take it off.”
Raskolnikov stares at him in bewilderment for a moment, his brain still not having caught up with his ears. Then, his body goes limp again and he collapses slackly against Razhumikhin. “Oh,” he mutters.
Razhumikhin decides not to say anything further and to keep his expression as neutral as possible as he props Raskolnikov up against the couch again and finishes taking off his pants - as quickly as possible, and trying very hard not to actually… look. Although he has to see what he’s doing. He just doesn’t want see-. Well. It’d be awkward. It is awkward.
He looks back up. Raskolnikov is once again all but dead, or at least dead to the world. His head lolls back on the couch cushion, his eyes half-open but directly only towards the low ceiling. (At this angle, he looks so handsome - in spite of everything.) He’s not paying attention to Razhumikhin at all.
Maybe that’s for the better, Razhumikhin thinks, wringing out the washcloth into the bucket. He may not even remember this - that’s definitely for the better, he decides. There’s no point to pretending that he’s not embarrassed by Raskolnikov’s nakedness, so it would be much better if Rodya never notices this fact.
Nor the fact that Razhumikhin’s eyes are inexorably drawn to… well, nevermind. Surely it’s a natural reaction. Who among us would not look at the forbidden fruit if given the chance, even if they had no intention of tasting it? Perhaps the only ones who wouldn’t look are the ones who desire to taste it the most. Yes, that’s right. Razhumikhin is sure that that’s right.
Raskolnikov’s hips are like knives. Sharp and pale, and as Razhumikhin runs the washcloth over them - a finger slips out and brushes them and even here, Raskolnikov’s skin is smooth and soft and radiating heat - it almost feels dangerous. He can cut himself on those hips, he imagines, and doom himself on those thighs. On where the water runs down in trickles and beads up like pearls, except somehow more precious.
Razhumikhin feels like he is drowning.
Later, when Raskolnikov’s new (or at least clean) clothes have been put on and he is sitting quietly on the couch, almost lying in Razhumikhin’s lap, and Razhumikhin is carefully combing his hair, Razhumikhin wonders. He wonders about the way the water rolled down Raskolnikov’s body, and he wonders about Raskolnikov’s skin, and his ribs, and his collarbone and his shoulderblades, and his scar, and his hips, and he wonders why he’s still thinking about this. He wonders why Raskolnikov feels so warm against him. Surely it’s just the fever. Maybe it’s contagious.
But maybe it’s something else. Just… something else.